It's half an hour to air time and one of America's hottest syndicated radio shrinks is sitting behind her desk at flagship station KFI-AM, dreaming of movie roles lost. "There are only two movies where I said it could have, should have been me," says Laura Schlessinger: the "Alien" series, starring Sigourney Weaver, and "Terminator's" Linda Hamilton. "They were strong women who took care of business. I admire that."
Boasting a weekly audience of 9 million listeners (she's heard in Washington on 980 WWRC-AM, noon to 3 p.m. weekdays), "Dr. Laura" is a new phenomenon on talk radio -- the conservative, moralistic therapist. Having gone national just last summer after a four-year local run on KFI, Dr. Laura (as she is widely known, though she is not an MD or a psychologist) trails only Rush Limbaugh and health show host Dr. Dean Edell in cumulative ratings among syndicated radio talk show hosts, according to her distributor, Radio Today. (However, WRC says her Washington area ratings have slipped about a half a share point since last winter.) Now heard in 150 markets throughout the United States and Canada, "The Dr. Laura Schlessinger Show" continues to sign up stations at an impressive pace.
And unlike the movie characters she so admires, Dr. Laura doesn't need heavy weapons to get her point across. She's got plenty of verbal ammunition.
She is arch-nemesis of the self-pitying and self-excusing. Basher of contemporary feminism. Preacher of old-fashioned morals. Critic of touchy-feely, new age psychology. Here's a psychotherapist Newt Gingrich and William Bennett could easily embrace. "Nothing is considered wrong' anymore!" she complains shortly before dashing up to the studio at KFI. "We need to reestablish the concept of shame and right and wrong. I really feel I am a beginning of a change in our society."
Schlessinger, 48, is sick and tired of the Me Generation. She is spiritual leader of the You Generation, as in: You better do what I say or I'll flatten you (and with a black belt in hapkido karate, she probably could). The term "nonjudgmental," a mainstay of mainstream psychotherapy, is not in Dr. Laura's handbook. (She'll tell you she's not doing therapy on her program anyway -- she's giving "advice.") With every phone call, Dr. Laura preaches her own mix of Old Testament values and neoconservative thought: Work hard, no sex before marriage, put your kids first, and for God's sake, take responsibility for your own life and your own choices!
She's no Dr. Joyce Brothers, Dr. Joy Brown or Dr. Frasier Crane, that's for sure. "When I hear psych types on the air, it's mostly, How do yooou feel?' What do yooou need?' What do yooou want?' " Schlessinger explains, oozing sarcasm. "I don't think I've ever heard them say, What you did is wrong!' "
Woe to the caller invoking squishy self-helpisms like "victim," "dysfunctional" or "codependent." Crutches, excuses! says Dr. Laura. Throw them away.
In dispensing her moral medicine to the show's callers, she sometimes treads a fine line between tough love and outright bullying. Callers may find their behavior labeled "stupid" or wind up on the receiving end of one of Dr. Laura's sarcastic barbs. She once told an unrepentant young lady having a torrid affair with an older, married man: "I'm not sure why you called me! Do you want my permission? Who am I? Your mother? Jiminy Cricket!"
"She's not kind at all, or should I say diplomatic," says Jack Roberts, WRC's acting program director, of Dr. Laura's on-air style. "People enjoy listening to that."
Try, just try, slipping past her moral radar. You'll get busted. Cheating spouses, lying friends, couples "getting sexual" too fast or "making babies" out of wedlock, parents neglecting kids, and women "picking" bad partners are all called to account for their actions:
To a caller who's losing interest in sex with her boyfriend, with whom she got intimate a month after they started dating: "Boy, you're really hard to get, aren't you?"
To a caller who'd been sexually abused by her father as a child while her mother did nothing to stop him, now concerned that her own children might hate their grandmother if told the truth: "Why shouldn't they hate their grandmother? She's evil."
To a caller with an unplanned pregnancy who didn't want to give the baby up for adoption, and was considering an abortion: "Let me get this straight. It would make you feel real bad to give this child a chance at life, but it wouldn't make you feel real bad killing it?"
Her enforcement of a conservative moral code among the listening masses makes some liberals bristle. "I got the impression that there's a difference between advice and telling people how to live," says Anita Rufus, a former Southern California radio talk show host known as "The Lovable Liberal." "People who have a large audience have a responsibility to understand the impact they can have."
How does Dr. Laura know her way is the right way? "I don't even know what that question means," she says. "People call me for an opinion, and they use the word opinion.' Could somebody disagree? Certainly. . . . You have to understand, people call me. I'm not calling people at home and bothering them."
Her fans are vocal and enthusiastic, flooding her office with letters and faxes, flocking to her public appearances, and jamming the show's switchboard with calls. (The staff estimates some 9,000 callers try to get through to the program every day.) "You're my best friend!" gushes one female caller before baring her soul. "The people go nuts if we bump that show," says WRC's Roberts. "They need their daily Dr. Laura fix." Dr. Laura vs. the Universe
When you meet Dr. Laura, you are surprised that the woman behind the authoritative, husky -- and arguably sexy -- radio voice is 5 feet 3, looking older than she sounds, though younger than her 48 years. With her angular features, permed reddish-blond hair, practical blue knit top, brooch and stirrup pants, she seems less like an L.A. radio star than a hard-working mom from the suburbs, which is, after all, how she bills herself.
Her credentials are substantial -- a PhD in physiology from Columbia (that's where the Dr.' comes from) and a postdoctoral certification in marriage and family therapy from USC. Before becoming a bona fide radio celebrity, she worked as a college professor and licensed marriage and family counselor in Southern California.
One day, more than 15 years ago, Schlessinger launched her broadcasting career quite fatefully, and spontaneously, by calling an L.A. radio program in response to the question "Would you rather be a widow or a divorcee?" -- to which she answered "Widow." The host liked her style so much he gave her a regular spot on his show. Eventually, Schlessinger got her own program, moving through a series of stations, time slots and formats, until settling into her current program at KFI in 1990.
"The Dr. Laura Schlessinger Show" is pure psychotainment -- a lively melange of phone calls, sermonettes, pop tune snippets and fusillades of the host's razor-sharp humor, sometimes at the callers' expense. "Yes, I'm a little wacky," she says, sounding an awful lot like Dana Carvey's Church Lady. But pat explanations of the show's success are elusive. There's the thrill of eavesdropping on other people's personal problems. There's her uncanny ability to zoom in to the heart of the callers' concerns in what seems like seconds. But it's the conflict between Dr. Laura and the callers that makes the show so electric. Each call is a drama in miniature: Dr. Laura vs. an amoral universe. You sit back and wait for her to pounce.
"I think she's self-righteous sometimes," says listener Ruth Fried, a retired secretary from West Hills, Calif. "It's like, I'm the genius psychologist and you're so lucky to be talking to me. Can't you see that I'm right?' . . . I think her stock and trade is sarcasm. It gets attention. The only person who doesn't get a laugh is the caller."
But Dr. Laura wasn't always so tough. She says over the years the callers have "trained" her to take a stand. "At first, I was more careful. Oh, my! How do you feel?' Then I realized there had to be a right and a wrong." And the bolder she has become, the better the show has done.
Fans find Dr. Laura's unflaggingly moral message refreshing. Agree or disagree, you always know where she stands. "People are a lot like children -- they like the consistency," says the show's producer, Carolyn Holt. "You can't tune in one day and it's one thing and the next day it's something else."
Silver Spring real estate agent Barbara Eisen, 44, discovered Dr. Laura six months ago. "I like her set of values and how she can get to the root of a problem and do it in such a moral, ethical and spiritual way."
Watching Schlessinger at work behind the microphone, you feel she really does want to help. She's suddenly somber after being unable to assist a woman whose marriage is disintegrating, and visibly elated after boosting the spirits of a depressed caller who'd just had her breast implants removed. Schlessinger calls herself one of the world's only "Jewish preachers." In her universe, the spiritual and the pragmatic neatly coexist. "I'm not saying, It's a sin. God's gonna get you!' That's not my point of view," she explains. "I just tell people why their behavior is wrong: what they have to lose if they do what they're doing, and what they have to gain if they stop."
Dr. Laura is especially tough on women. A self-described "recovered feminist," she belongs to what one feminist writer calls the "pull yourself up by your own G-string" school of thought, to wit: Women should stop "whining" and blaming men for their problems and empower themselves as individuals to do better. She spreads her message nearly every day on the air, and in her best-selling book, "Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives" (chapters include "Stupid Courtship," "Stupid Cohabitation" and "Stupid Helplessness"). If, for instance, a woman calls the show to complain about an abusive, philandering or noncommittal mate, Dr. Laura will likely castigate her for "choosing" the guy in the first place or for failing to cut him loose.
Schlessinger roundly condemns feminist leaders for "betraying" the women of America. "Feminists said you should be having sex with the same freedom as men. Multiple lovers? Getting divorced? No problem. Work should be the foremost thing in your life. You should put your kids in day care," she says. "The feminist movement was supposed to free us up with our opportunities. Instead, it degraded our femininity."
Harriett Woods, president of the National Women's Political Caucus, says, "She's choosing to interpret feminism as some kind of forced march which she got stuck on and feels she fought her way out of. Frankly, she looks like one of those women who is kicking the ladder away after she's gotten the benefit. . . . She's manufacturing an argument, maybe for ratings points. I don't know why."
Others dispute Dr. Laura's contention that putting kids in day care is inspired by feminist doctrine rather than raw, economic necessity. "I think that Laura Schlessinger is a person who can make a very nice living working four or six hours a day. But I know people who can barely scrape by on 10 hours a day," says Margaret Echevarria, 47, a listener and law student at UCLA. (Dr. Laura insists stay-at-home moms still can earn a living by starting in-home businesses.) Hurt Feelings?
Of course, Dr. Laura's timing couldn't be better. Her crusade against feminist doctrine, perceived immoral behavior and victimhood dovetails nicely with the conservative mood sweeping the country -- and the radio airwaves. Nevertheless, she points out that her program predated November's GOP revolution in Congress. "My show struck a chord before everything went Republican," she says. "I came first!"
Schlessinger's own political preferences are harder to discern. Though she rated herself "6 to 10" on the spectrum (with 10 being the most conservative) in a recent survey of talk show hosts, she won't disclose her feelings about the president, the first lady,Speaker Gingrich or fellow talker Limbaugh. "I have no political opinions that I'm going to give you. None. Zero. You can ask 10 more times and it won't happen."
Still, she has some high-profile right-wing fans. Oliver North, who debuted his own talk show on WRC earlier this year (immediately following Dr. Laura's in the station's line-up), is an avid Laura-listener. "I don't care what her politics are," North says. "The advice she's giving is very, very sound, and it's my philosophy, too: Take personal responsibility, stop whining and get on with life."
Wade Horn, director of the National Fatherhood Initiative and commissioner for children, youth and families under President Bush, is similarly impressed. "Her emphasis on taking charge of one's own life and the consequences of one's choices are all in juxtaposition with the welfare state, which assumes a culture of victimhood. Her message is very consistent with conservative Republican philosophy."
Beneath Dr. Laura's steel-plated, hypercharged exterior, though, there are fleeting glimpses of vulnerability, self-doubt -- and a need for control. The same Dr. Laura who once advised a caller, "Hurt feelings are just hurt feelings," inquires of a reporter at the end of an interview, "You're not going to write anything that will hurt my feelings, are you?" Asked if Dr. Laura has any vulnerabilities listeners might not readily know about, producer Holt volunteers, "Unjust criticism."
Fiercely protective of her public image, Dr. Laura feels she can no longer trust the press. "I'm becoming very cynical," she complains. She recently believed she was misquoted by a big-city newspaper and soon afterward announced, on air, a policy of no longer granting print interviews. Upon learning that The Washington Post was attempting to contact her estranged mother and her sister for this article, Schlessinger abruptly withdrew any further cooperation with the story (most of which was completed before the print ban), and, in a subsequent conversation, hung up on a reporter. (Neither her mother nor her sister could be reached.)
Like those of many of her callers, Dr. Laura's own life has been far from Norman Rockwell-perfect. She had an uneasy childhood in Brooklyn as the daughter of a Jewish engineer and a gorgeous but bitter Italian war bride whose stormy 30-year marriage ended in divorce. Her first marriage, to a fellow grad student at Columbia Medical School, also failed. She not only is estranged from her mother, but, according to her husband, "doesn't see much" of her younger sister.
To hear Dr. Laura tell it, her mother was exactly the kind of woman she now criticizes, for complaining and expecting too much from life without ever really bothering to better herself. "She had the brains, but not the grit, to tackle something and follow it through," says Dr. Laura. "I'm the total opposite of my mother."
After her parents divorced, she gave her mother a receptionist's job on her then-local radio show. She says her mom became indignant after Dr. Laura offered to send her to typing class. "I said, I need somebody to type,' and she said, Then you need somebody else.' She packed up her stuff and exited my life."
Dr. Laura says the two have been incommunicado' ever since.
Dr. Laura clearly does not believe her past personal troubles disqualify her from giving advice to a mass audience. True to her philosophy, she feels she cannot be responsible for anyone's behavior but her own. If anything, life's disappointments seem to have brought her on-air philosophy into focus, though she insists her experience as a radio host and clinician were more influential.
Dr. Laura likes to distinguish the "family that made her" from her new family -- second husband Lew Bishop and their 10-year old son, Deryk -- to whom she can retreat for solace and support.
The program truly is a family effort. Bishop manages her career and packs BLT sandwiches for her to gobble during commercial breaks. Deryk sells T-shirts at Dr. Laura's public appearances, and, on occasion, even co-hosts the show.
"It's not always fun," says Bishop. "There are times when it's a hassle, and a lot of times when it's wonderful. Agony and ecstasy."
The family has been through a lot. Their ranch house in the San Fernando Valley was damaged in last year's earthquake and all but burned to the ground a few years ago. Bishop nearly died of heart failure in 1993. And then there are the continuing pressures of Dr. Laura's high-profile career. How does the family cope? Dr. Laura leans back in her chair and looks you square in the eye. "We're tough." CAPTION: You're on the air. Laura Schlessinger: "I just tell people why their behavior is wrong: what they have to lose if they do what they're doing, and what they have to gain if they stop." CAPTION: Laura Schlessinger and son Deryk, 10, who sometimes co-hosts her show.